Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

South By South West

Austin lives up to its own billing as the live music capital of the world. Admittedly, markontour was visiting during the legendary South By South West (SXSW) tech/film/music festival, but you can only make judgements based on available data. On this basis Sixth Street is a gig-goers dream, where every bar and almost every restaurant has constant live bands from 4pm until past the midnight hour. If the evidence that I am alive wasn’t so overwhelming, a few nights in Austin might have convinced me that I had died and gone to heaven (putting to one side the anthropocene nightmare that is urban American traffic).

Indeed, contradictions are the order of the day in Austin. This liberal, easy-going town, with a progressive mayor and where multiple residents on my morning jogging route were still proudly displaying their ‘Vote Bernie’ placards, is also the state capital of Texas. Named after a a slavery-supporting ’empresario’ – someone who arranged for prospective colonists to obtain land in what was then the northern province of the Mexican Empire – Austin has its roots in the final stages of the creation of the United States of America we know today.

Admittedly, Texas was a little late to the party and, like modern day California and Arizona, it was still part of Mexico sixty years after George Washington became the new union’s first president. By the 1830s, however, Mexico was struggling to maintain the northern reaches of its empire and was only too glad to welcome in thousands of taxable Anglo-American colonists. This they achieved through the help of Yankee ’empresarios’, agents who arranged land and passage for migrants. But while this work was profitable, two leading empresarios, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, calculated that they could make more money by cutting out the middle man and so in 1836 they successfully led a revolution against their Latino hosts.

Victory achieved, they quickly set about abolishing ‘restrictive’ Mexican laws, including those that permitted property ownership by women and had outlawed slavery. The Texan population grew rapidly, through a combination of Anglo famers and their African slaves, and the meagre bounty of the plains soil was quickly harnessed to grow tobacco. For ten years Texas operated as a sovereign state, before its application to join the USA was accepted. Twenty years later, the Texas Rangers were at the forefront of the fight to maintain slavery, leading the Confederate troops in the American Civil War.

This much I learned at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, a suitably giant edifice near the equally grand State Senate. It’s well worth a visit, although markontour couldn’t help but focus on what was missing or subdued in the history on offer. The transition of Texas from cowboy country to global energy power is well documented. Indeed, it’s easy to lose half an hour watching John Wayne defend the Alamo in the mini-cinema, or be astounded by the displays documenting how new Texan finds at the turn of the twentieth century more than doubled global oil and gas reserves. But, surely the decimation of the once 200,000-strong Comanche Indian population deserves more than a passing reference, and I would have loved some reflection on the centuries of Texas’ Mexican heritage, other than in the context of that civilisation’s defeat at the hands of Europeans.

Austin in 2018, however, is much more interesting, especially when SXSW is in town. Started in 1987, the year U2 released ‘Rattle and Hum’, The Stone Roses casually put out ‘Sally Cinnamon’ and The Smiths called it a day, SXSW is now a downtown-sprawling, two-week long festival of music, film and technological innovation. Markontour was able to enjoy the mayors of New York, Austin and Portland discussing net democracy, astronauts debating Mars vs Earth, a virtual-reality game where colossal waves are generated by intense singing, and more bands than you can shake a stick at, all without stepping in a puddle or crawling into a tent. This is surely the future of festivals.

It’s hard to judge the bars on the basis of what they were like during SXSW, but everything at Flamingo Cantina was brilliant. A backroom bar on the Sixth Street strip, Flamingo’s frescoed walls and tin-shack feel is perfect for its reggae fare, and I loved how the stage can be viewed from three angles, including looking down and in from a rooftop bar, cocktail in hand.

Special musical mention must also go to Glasgow bands Catholic Action and Emme Woods on the British Music Embassy stage in Latitude 30. Catholic Action are rapidly becoming by favourite young band and in Austin they slouched on to stage to God Save The Queen, only to dismiss it as “Not the right anthem – we’re from Scotland”. After a blistering run of tracks from their debut album, lead singer Chris McCroy produced a battered notebook and introduced some very new material, pointing out the words as he went. Emme Woods was differently brilliant and one to watch. Together they confirmed that one export that is not at risk from Brexit is British music.

Away from SXSW, markontour found veggie respite at Flower Child, enjoyed a brilliant documentary about cyclist David Millar at the Alamo Drafthouse cinema, where there is a waiter service throughout the film. It was also fun to find a few moments respite by the river in the Ziker Botanical Gardens, although you’re never far away from traffic in a Texan city it seems. That goes in spades for my motel accommodation, the Days Inn. The staff were wonderful and the rooms clean and well maintained, but sleep does not come easy when your pillow is less than fifty yards from sixteen lanes of traffic. Next time it will be Air BnB..

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